Who knows why, but in the last year I’ve been reading surveys of ancient civilizations. I’ve got Sumer and Ur and Babylon on the brain. The most fun parts are surviving letters of middle-Eastern kings to their children, written on clay tablets in cuneiform, but otherwise like modern parents’ letters a litany of dissatisfaction. They run something like this: “From the Emperor of the Seven Kingdoms and of the Universe Asur-Nastipal to his younger son: Why have you not written to me? Your older brother writes me every week! Are you lounging in the harem as usual? Listen to your father, my son: last week I defeated the Saurians on the battlefield and drowned the valleys with their blood. What have you done for me lately? At the last new moon your brother attacked the Nautians and piled their heads to the rafters of their palace! O my son, when will you live up to your potential? Those idiot kings Sili-Sin and Rim-Sin are better vassals that you, my own son! Last year I sent you sixteen beautiful virgins! Where is your gratitude? Your brother has been endlessly grateful for his virgins!! I entreat, nay command you to get off your backside and your harem and write to me instantly. You know what happened to your younger brother, of whose memory nothing may be spoken!!!”

All this began with Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra, which is a lovely book and a masterful job of doing a lot with little information. (I’d add the same about Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare, which I just finished.)

My fantasy letter above is not that much of an exaggeration, except that they didn’t have exclamation points in cuneiform. It would not have been out of form for the older son to raise an army and come after dad and kill him with his own hands after a little tete a tete: “And you know those virgins, dad? They were second hand, if you get my drift!” In those days not a lot of thrones turned over without blood. If there were brothers, the throne went to the first to kill off the other brothers. And/or dad, or mom.

Cleopatra if I remember took care of a couple of brothers to secure the throne of Egypt. She was officially married to another brother, which happened a lot. (He probably never touched her.) (Hmmm. She may finally have had him killed too. You lose track.) Some royals married their moms, though that was considered a little over the top, even by the ancients. If you took part in stabbing Julius Caesar on the floor of the Senate, you didn’t necessarily lose your chance at the throne. Marc Antony made the mistake of getting goofy over Cleopatra, which gave an opening to his fellow Triumvirate member Octavian, which doomed both Antony and Cleopatra.

By the way, as best we can tell from her portraits on coins and such, Cleopatra wasn’t actually all that cute, but she had a great personality and fabulous clothes. She knew how to make an impression. Most ancient rulers had two means to get their way: wiles and violence. Cleopatra had three: wiles, violence, and sex. Did she love Marc Antony, or was she just using him–as she had Julius Caesar–to get in good with the Romans? If so, it went a little awry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *